iKNOW Politics: What are the key challenges to Jordanian women’s participation in politics?
There are many cau ses but the most important is the social culture that lacks democracy and in order to help women attain their roles in the political, economic and social spheres we have to change culture. But it takes a very long time to change a culture so we have to seek other solutions. Culture and legislation are two faces of the same coin. So, in order to rectify the situation we must address legislation pertaining to women’s political participation, such as the electoral law. As a member of civil society I have been working since 1993 to change these laws. Well, the government has given us a quota which prevents women form larger constituencies to win seats. Now, after much hard work, we have a 13 seat quota. There are also the lists. Now we have 16 women in parliament, 13 from the quota, 2 from competitive elections (Mariam AlLawzy and Waffa Ben Mostafa) and 1 from the lists.
So to go back to your question, I think that the main challenge is that of culture. I think that the Government has a role to play as do civil society and the private sector. No one entity can accomplish this on its own. Also, the legislators, both in the lower and upper house, must give due consideration to the most vulnerable social groups.
Also, for a woman to enter parliament she must be capable, she must be a leader and must have economic independence, which is usually not the case in Jordan. In the United States, for example, women can hold fundraising campaigns but this is not possible in Jordan. Here, women have to support themselves and unfortunately not many can do so. She must rely on her personal funds or perhaps support from understanding relatives.
Women need not only to access political spheres but all sectors of society and all parts of the pyramid: higher, middle and lower level jobs.
iKNOW Politics: Many Latin American countries are moving beyond quotas and calling for parity. Is parity on the agenda in Jordan?
We are aiming for parity, equality and equal opportunity but in order to open the way for this kind of progress we must work hard on changing the existing culture. I believe the strongest tool we can use is quotas. There are many types of quotas that can be used and not just in parliament. In Germany, for example, they have quotas on their political party lists but our political parties are not mature enough. Quotas represent a temporary remedy that can be used in the current situation with a view to eventually achieve parity.
iKNOW Politics: Has the Arab Spring represented an opportunity or regression for women in politics?
Well, I am both optimistic and pessimistic. At first I thought it meant regression for women in the region because of the mixing between religion and politics. Women who participated in the Arab Spring and participated strongly in the protests were not accounted for later. Even women who played prominent roles before the uprising, such as Dr. Tahani Al Gebaly, a judge in the Constitutional Court in Egypt, were sidelined. The moment the Muslim Brotherhood came to power women judges were isolated from the constitutional court. At the same time they also prevented women law graduates from taking part in people’s councils, which was allowed before. The constitution that was put into place is very dangerous for women’s advancement in Egypt. In Yemen I see things differently. When women participated in the uprisings in Yemen it represented a step forward. Also, in Libya, women’s participation in the protests was a good thing but their participation in the protests is not what I’m concerned about. We need to see what happens after that and whether coming regimes are in favor of women. As they say “do not judge a book by its cover”. The revolution is still in the beginning but I am afraid we remain in this bottleneck and I keep reminding people that there is a big difference between democracy and chaos.
iKNOW Politics: What should be the role of women in political transitional processes and in constitutional building?
If you look at women’s representation in the Government in Jordan, for example, we have 15% in the Senate and 11% in the lower house. Unfortunately, the number of woman ministers is decreasing. It was five then four, then I was the only one and then there were none and now there is one again: Minister for Social Development. This fluctuation does not reflect real democracy and I think that if we increase the number of women in decision making at all levels this will pave the way for real democracy – women’s participation in all spheres and not just the political. The social sphere is of particular importance, for example, to enact laws on violence against women, which is sadly an increasing phenomenon. If women are in danger of suffering from violence or rape they cannot participate effectively in public life and in the development process.
We have high rates of education. They call for more education of women and yet there is no commensurate effort to integrate women’s participation.
Even women stand in the way of other women. Having been brought up in this patriarchal culture, they do not help to forward the progress of women’s participation. Both men and women: mothers and fathers need to become more enlightened regarding women’s issues. There is also a need for the sensitization of the media which is often very detrimental to the portrayal of women. We need to increase women decision makers in the media industry.
Another thing is that women parliamentarians need to address women’s issues. They discuss all issues but steer clear of addressing women’s issues specifically so as not to appear weak. They also need to build bridges between themselves and between civil society. When I was State Minister for Women’s Affairs, I used to attend many parliamentary sessions and spent a lot of my time studying legislation pertaining to women’s affairs and there were so many discrepancies that needed to be addressed. Even law regulating relations between tenants and landlords: for example, if a woman’s husband dies, she is required to leave the house even if she is able to afford the rent!
iKNOW Politics: Do you think that the new information technology, such as Facebook and Twitter, are helpful to women in politics?
Yes, of course, but these are very dangerous tools because if you misrepresent yourself this will be hugely magnified and will reflect badly on women in politics. A woman has to manipulate these tools in a positive way. In fact, the Arab Spring began because of all these websites and social media tools. I guess that women in politics need not rely on only these tools but should establish themselves by being more knowledgeable, participating in conferences, becoming a public figure, being assertive, democratic, and modest and by helping others. Being in the public eye is not like having a job in an office where no one sees you. You have to be positive on every level. With these tools you need to be clear and pinpoint your issues in one or two lines. You have to be very careful to be able to express your opinion in a line or two.